Lanam fecit and Craftivism

Women in antiquity were so much more badass than they get credit for. Because we hear almost exclusively from men in the surviving literature, our portraits of women in antiquity are sketchy and highly biased (as we saw with Clodia Metelli). The tombstones of Roman women usually focus on their virtues as wives, mothers, and homemakers, including the common phrases domum servavit, lanam fecit: “she cared for the home, she spun wool.”

Weaving was a symbol of feminine virtue and chastity: a “good wife” stayed home, spinning thread and weaving clothing for her family. The prime example of this from Latin literature is, of course, Lucretia: Livy recounts the legend that the princes and leading men of Rome decide (late at night, in a fog of alcohol and competitive spirit) to pay surprise visits to their wives to see what they got up to when no one was watching. While other wives and daughters are enjoying a girls’ night out (nothing to be ashamed of, unless you’re an uptight Roman), Collatinus’s wife Lucretia is sitting in the front hall of their home, her maids around her, hard at work weaving and spinning despite the late hour (Livy 1.57). Everyone is forced to agree that Lucretia is the most virtuous and pure of all their wives. Of course, Collatinus’s desire to show off his wife results in disastrous consequences for Lucretia, but her suicide solidifies her legacy as the quintessential chaste wife. For the duration of Roman society, weaving remains the ultimate symbol of feminine virtue.

The Relief of Ulpia Epigone, Rome; early 2nd century C.E. Notice the wool basket that Ulpia uses as a footrest — a subtle signal of her homemaking virtues. Image from Eve D’Ambra, ed. Roman Art in Context (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), fig. 37.

But even our male-dominated literature hints at the power of such cottage industry. Greek myths memorialized tales of women who used their weaving as a means of storytelling, or as a way to claim power within their own household. Penelope held off the gang of suitors in her house by telling them that she would choose a new husband after she finished weaving her father-in-law’s burial shroud; by day she worked at her loom, and by night she unraveled her progress. This trick worked FOR THREE YEARS, until they finally caught her unweaving one night (Od. 2.93ff).

Dora Wheeler (American), “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night.” 1886. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This work, memorializing the power of textile production, is itself a textile: it is made of silk embroidered with silk thread.

Helen of Troy is often vilified for betraying her husband and thus her womanly virtue, but the first time we see Helen in the Iliad (3.125), she is sitting in the hall, weaving a double-thick purple cloth and embroidering it with the battles between Trojans and Greeks. Within the Iliad itself, we see that Helen is weaving her own Iliad, simultaneously reclaiming her virtue and her voice in telling her version of the story.

In Book 6 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells two tales of powerful weaving: Arachne and Philomela. Philomela is raped by her own brother-in-law. When she threatens to tell her sister (his wife) about what he has done, he cuts out Philomela’s tongue and keeps her locked up. But apparently weaving is so integral to female existence that even prisoner-women have access to looms and wool: in captivity Philomela weaves a tapestry that reveals what has happened to her and sends it to her sister, who deciphers the message, rescues Philomela, and exacts revenge on her husband by killing their son and serving him up in a stew. Philomela regains her voice and freedom through weaving.

Arachne is a humble girl from Lydia with nothing to recommend her except her incredible skill in spinning and weaving, so great that wood nymphs leave their homes to watch her work and that she’s said to rival Athena’s own skill. The goddess of weaving comes to challenge Arachne, and the girl does not back down. Athena weaves a tapestry depicting the naming of Athens after herself, as well as motifs of mortals who suffered for challenging the gods as a warning to Arachne. Arachne, on the other hand, weaves the crimes of the gods: she depicts Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo disguising themselves to rape mortal women. Athena rips up the tapestry, beats Arachne, and changes her into a spider, but not for being unable to match the goddess’s ability: she can find no fault with Arachne’s skill, and this infuriates her (Met. 6.129-130). Not only did Arachne not lose the contest, she exposed the gods’ crimes to boot: that is why Athena punished her.

Greek terracotta lekythos showing women weaving at a loom, spinning wool into thread, and folding a finished cloth. 550-530 BCE; attributed to the Amasis Painter. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Creative Commons).

If women’s fiber arts held such power in myth, we can comfortably infer that they held at least some similar power in real life as well, though few literary records of it survive. Despite being consistently undervalued, fiber arts throughout western history were much more than a way to clothe the family: weaving and embroidery gave women a chance to tell stories their own way, as well as to gather in community and build each other up. This aspect of craft is alive and well today, in what is generally referred to as craftivism.

Modern craftivists express their identities and beliefs through the objects they craft. Craftivism can manifest at every level of a created object, from sourcing environmentally friendly fibers or found/recycled materials, to the design process, to the imagery itself, to the display context. Craftivism ranges from the anti-capitalist/anti-sweatshop intent to make one’s own clothing, to public knit-ins that protest injustice or raise awareness of gendered space and unpaid labor, to crafting pieces that challenge injustice or celebrate social change, to simply using a crafting context as an opportunity to discuss solutions to social and political problems.

Although craftivism happens everywhere that crafting happens, my personal awareness of it comes primarily from Instagram: as a knitter and crocheter myself, I follow several artists and designers that subscribe to a craftivist ethos. In the rest of this post I’ve highlighted just a few of the exemplary instances of craftivism that populate my feed. Penelope would be proud of these folks.

The Knitorious RBG is a sweater knitting pattern by designer Park Williams.

The Social Justice Sewing Academy “empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.”

Jessie Telfair, a Black woman from Georgia, was fired from her job because she tried to register to vote. She made this quilt some twenty years later (in the early 1980s) as a response. The quilt is now on display at the American Folk Art Museum.

Empower People 2020 is a craftivism movement that aims to unite crafters in all media to seize the pivotal moment that 2020 has become in the United States and work for social justice.

In addition to this shawl pattern in honor of Juneteenth, Shay also designs size inclusive garment patterns.

Voting activism + an app that makes knitting patterns accessible. Hooray for Knitrino!

I think the book cover says it all here.
The iconic Lady in Orange, Gaye shares her knits and wisdom, and calls us in to “stand in the gap.”
Grace Anna Farrow (@astitchtowear) embroiders powerful famous quotes and calls to action.

Part of craftivism is remembering the crafting ancestors who came before us. In that spirit, let’s close by remembering and valuing the work that women like Claudia did:

Hospes quod deico paullum est asta ac pellege /
h{e}ic est sepulcrum hau(d) pulc(h)rum pulc(h)rai feminae /
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam /
su<u=O>m mareitum corde deilexit s{o}uo /
gnatos duos creavit horunc alterum /
in terra linquit alium sub terra locat /
sermone lepido tum autem incessu commodo /
domum servavit lanam fecit dixi ab{e}i

Stranger, what I say is short; stand and read through it
This is the hardly-beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman
Her parents named her Claudia
She loved her husband with all her heart
She bore two sons, one of whom
she leaves on earth, the other she placed under it
With pleasant speech but respectable gait
she cared for her home and made wool. I have spoken; move along.

CIL 06.15346